Monday, October 31, 2011

The economic is political, and the political gets personal in Cooperstown

The New York Times featured another story about fracking yesterday, this one datelined Cooperstown, New York, home of the baseball hall of fame. That's right, not even picturesque Cooperstown has been left alone by energy exploration companies wishing to use this controversial technique to release natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. (Read a recent post on fracking in the Marcellus Shale here). The story's lede sets up the conflict between those who oppose the extraction and those who support it, with anecdotes illustrating the sometimes personal and vitriolic nature of the attacks on those who have openly taken positions, either pro or con:
The letter that arrived in Kim Jastremski’s mailbox on County Highway 52 suggested that she stop protesting the possibility of natural gas drilling. ...
Computer-generated, unsigned and sent to about 10 other opponents of a practice known as fracking, it compared them to Nazis and said they were being watched while picking up their children at school in their minivans.
Jennifer Huntington’s abuse is more public, like comments online suggesting that people find out where her dairy sells its milk so that they can stop buying it, or the warning that her farm, which has a lease with a gas company, “will fall like a house of cards when your water is poisoned.”
Huntington and others who support drilling have also been called "sellout landowners that prostitute themselves for money."

The intensity and personal nature of some of the attacks recounted is one striking part of the story, and it reminds me of this post a few weeks ago, which highlighted the very hurtful consequences when small town folks act under cover of anonymity on knowledge gained due to the lack of anonymity that is characteristic of small towns. Peter Applebome, reporting for the Times, notes that online information and communication have fueled the conflict.

Applebome also observes that the disputes often pit those who "live in suburbs or villages against the farmers and landowners who live outside them," which often equates to the more affluent versus those with less. Ms. Huntington, the dairy farmer with a gas lease on her land, highlights the economic challenges facing farmers as a reason for their openness to the drilling leases. Huntington uses the shocking term "pastoral poverty" to describe the economic situation facing farm enterprises like hers.
You have farmers trying to hold on to land that’s been in their family for 100 to 200 years. People like the landscape, but it’s people living in poverty who are maintaining what they like to look at.
Applebome closes the story by further emphasizing the underlying old-timer/newcomer aspect of the dispute, which often align along an industry/tourism divide. Those who support fracking, Applebome reports, "say the professionals and retirees drawn to the area have become antigrowth fanatics, opposing a once-a-year music festival proposed in nearby Springfield, wind turbines proposed for Cherry Valley, even additional Little League fields."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Native American women: Victims of criminal jurisdiction quagmire

Native American women are nearly three times as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted as the average American woman, according to a 2007 Amnesty International report. Many factors contribute to this disparity: underfunded tribal police departments, cultural gender bias and geographic isolation. Ironically, a landmark Supreme Court decision viewed at the time as a victory for Native Americans plays a large part in this ongoing tragedy.

John Marshall's decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) established the limits to state intervention in tribal affairs. Georgia had subjugated the Cherokee nation following the discovery of gold on tribal lands in the 1820s. The state confiscated property and refused to recognize Cherokee law.

The United States Supreme Court refused to consider the tribe's grievances in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), but it stood up for the Cherokee when the state tried to impose laws limiting who could travel on their land. "The Cherokee nation is a distinct community ... in which the laws of Georgia can have no force," Marshall wrote. The federal government, believed to be more accommodating of Native Americans, would be the only white authority in tribal matters.

The federal government proved to be a poor friend of the Cherokee (See: Trail of Tears) and a delinquent partner in fighting tribal sex abuse. Writer Kathie Dobie explored this problem in an article in Harper's magazine: "Tiny Little Laws: A Plague of Violence in Indian Country." A major source of confusion results from the conflicting jurisdictions between tribal, state and federal officials. Dobie explains the situation as it plays out on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, straddling the border between North and South Dakota:

Only the feds can prosecute a non-Indian who commits a crime against an Indian on tribal land. The tribal courts can prosecute only Indian offenders and if both the defendant and the victim are non-Indian, the state - not the federal government, not the tribe - steps in. One can well imagine how the investigative delays multiply while the authorities attempt to figure our the race of both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.
Making matters worse, federal prosecutors have been reluctant to take up Native American cases. Between 1997 and 2006, U.S. attorneys refused to pursue nearly two thirds of such cases, more than twice the rejection rate for all federal cases, according to a Denver Post study cited by Dobie. And Syracuse University researchers obtained records showing that the federal government declined to prosecute 76.5 percent of adult sex-crime cases and 72 percent of child sex-crime cases between 2004 and 2007. A public defender who didn't give his name for Dobie's article says federal prosecutors would rather go after cases involving terrorists, drug cartels or white-collar crime. He adds:

The feds believe that if they have a strong enough case, they’re going to prosecute it, and a strong enough case means a slam-dunk. If it’s a marginal call or if they believe they have a chance of losing, they will not prosecute.
If the federal government refuses to prosecute, the case falls back to tribal courts, assuming the accused is a tribal member. These are the courts that impose the "Tiny Little Laws" referenced in the title to Dobie's article. The Major Crimes Act of 1885 created sentencing limits on Indian courts. As of 2010, under tribal law, someone convicted of murder, manslaughter, rape, assault with intent to kill, arson, burglary, and incest would get, at most, one year in prison.

The Tribal Law and Order Act, which President Obama signed in 2010, allows these courts the option of sentencing criminals to three years. But the tribal courts must provide defendants with a licensed attorney, something many tribes can't afford. (This may be part of the reason why tribal gang violence is also a problem on reservations, as Professor Pruitt noted here in 2009. She also wrote about the Tribal Law and Order Act here).

While Worcester prevents states from prosecuting these cases, creative solutions could benefit all parties involved. Such collaboration has happened in other situations. This past summer, Oregon changed its definition of "police officer" in a way that gives tribal police the authority to arrest non-tribal members. The hope is that this will relieve the burden on sheriff's departments and state troopers, while empowering tribal police to pursue cases in which the racial identity of the accused is initially unknown.

Perhaps an arrangement in Standing Rock and other reservations could allow counties to provide prosecutors and public defenders in tribal courts. The district attorneys would probably be more familiar with handling rape and violent-crime cases than federal prosecutors, and have an interest in limiting crimes within their county as a whole. under these circumstances, the federal government might agree to provide additional funding, since this would lighten the burden on U.S. attorneys. And victims would feel more comfortable having justice served on the reservation, instead of in a distant U.S. courthouse.

The major hole with this scheme is where a convict would be imprisoned. Dobie notes in her article that most tribal jails are already filled to capacity. Sad to say, given today's economic problems, I don't see tribal, state or federal officials willing to provide more funding to incarcerate those who are raping Native American women.

The devil's kitchen in rural America

Crank, crystal, white crunch, amp, speed, glass, ice, "P", and many more all refer to the same thing, methamphetamine or meth, a drug that is taking rural America by storm. Meth isn't a new drug. It was first synthesized in Japan in 1893 with the aim of treating narcolepsy and depression. It was approved by the FDA in 1944 but later had its approval revoked. It was even distributed to Allied and Axis forces during WWII, prior to any known negative effects of the drug. It wasn't until 1960 that meth became a recreational drug, often supplied by street gangs.

Unlike many street drugs such as marijuana or cocaine, meth is easily made from common household chemicals. Ingredients vary depending on the "recipe" but usually include variances of ephedrine (a nasal decongestant), battery acid, Drano, match heads, fertilizer, lantern fuel, ammonia, and road flares. Once mixed, the chemical are "cooked" or reduced down to a white or brown crystal. The end result, prior to any preparation for use, often appears as thin shattered glass.

Meth is as versatile in the ways to make it as ways to use it. Users smoke the crystals in glass bulbous pipes or mix it with tobacco or marijuana cigarettes, dissolve it in liquid for drinking, inject it intravenously, or snort it similar to cocaine.

Besides the obvious health issues associated with meth use, additional problems include the potential environmental impacts the caustic chemicals have on the environment. many believe the drug also increases crime related to the use, sale, and purchase of meth. Rural America has been hit the hardest by meth.

Rural areas make ideal places to "cook" meth. The private expansive spaces and access to large quantities of potential ingredients, usually stolen from local farmers, has created a serious problem for rural communities. Based on federal drug statistics, Asa Hutchinson of the Drug Enforcement Administration said, ''I would call it (meth) the No. 1 drug problem in rural America."

Rural areas are seeing an increase in the drug's use and manufacturing. Sheriff and city police departments are having to conduct an increasing number of meth lab busts, industrial burglary investigations of chemicals, domestic violence, and child endangerment cases. The often small rural agencies are often stretched thin on resources and money to combat the drug. The result is that the drug is winning the fight.

Along with the increase in crime these communities must also deal with the dangerous chemicals left over from making the meth. For every one pound of meth that hits the street approximately five to six pounds of toxic waste are created. The toxic waste leftovers are often simply dumped by the "cookers". These chemicals flow into local groundwater supplies, streams and lakes, and they wreak havoc on the local environment. Again, the small budgets of rural governments are often limited in what they can do to properly clean up the hazards.

There are several sources online that are helpful in understanding the serious effects of meth on the individual and on the community. Deputy Sheriff Bret King, of Multnomah County, has organized a website entitled "Faces of Meth." The website shows images of Multnomah County inmates and their rapid changes after getting involved in meth. America Meth is a short documentary, narrated by actor Val Kilmer, that explores the effects meth is having on America's communities and families.

As the meth problem grows in middle America, many ask what can be done to better combat the drug. Some look to stricter drug laws, while others look to better education concerning the drug's effects. Either way something needs to be done to limit the consequences of meth before The Devil's Kitchen becomes too popular a restaurant.

A few related blog posts are Meth in Europe and When the drug trades comes to town.

The new face of suburbia: poverty moves in next door

Contrary to popular belief (and what the new series "Suburbatory" and movies like "The Burbs" illustrate), the majority of people currently living in poverty are not living in the inner cities or rural America. Most of those below the poverty line live in suburbia.

In 2009, The Brookings Institution launched the Metropolitan Opportunity Series to document the changing geography of poverty in America, specifically focusing on the changing landscape of metropolitan areas. The series recently noted that from 2000 to 2010, the increase in poor residents in major metropolitan suburbs grew 53%, compared to 23% in cities. The series highlighted that poor populations have been shifting toward suburban areas for more than a decade. The recession accelerated this trend, quickly changing the demographics of suburban areas and redefining the image of suburbs.

Figure 1
Elizabeth Kneebone, a senior research associate at Brookings said, "We think of poverty as a really urban [read: inner city] or ultra-rural phenomenon, but it's not. It's increasingly a suburban issue."

One Brookings series report found that California, Texas, and Florida are the states with the greatest increase in suburban poverty (see Figure 1). The report further ranked the metropolitan areas with the highest rate of poverty in their suburbs and found the highest rate of poverty in McAllen, Texas. In 2008, the poverty rate in the suburban area of McAllen was 36.7% and the poverty rate in the city was lower, where 28.3% of residents were below the poverty line.

So what is causing the suburbanization of poverty? Analysts attribute the suburbanization of poverty to minorities and immigrants who left cities in the early 2000s for more affordable housing and also to construction and manufacturing jobs. For those who were already living on the edge of poverty, the housing crisis, decreases in wages, and unemployment tipped them into poverty as well. In cities like McAllen, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate is 12%.

Americans who use Housing Choice Vouchers (HCV) have also increasingly moved into suburban areas. HCVs help very low-income families afford housing in the private market in lieu of housing through a Section 8 housing project. Another Brookings study, conducted recently as part of the Metropolitan Opportunity Series, found that more than 49% of HCV recipients lived in suburban areas in 2008. The rates at which HCV recipients are suburbanizing, however, are much slower than those of poor populations overall. The reasons for this slower rate of suburbanization by HCV recipients are unclear. Brookings suggests it might be related to HUD housing policy restrictions or discrimination against HCV recipients in suburban housing markets.

The middle-class population who lost their jobs in the Great Recession also make up a subset of those in suburban poverty. These former middle-class individuals find themselves asking for help from the nonprofit agencies they previously helped to support. Many suburban nonprofit agencies are struggling to manage the increase in demand. A study from October 2010 found that 73% of suburban nonprofits are seeing an increase in clients who previously did not have a need for their services. Further, 47% of suburban nonprofits lost a key revenue source in 2010 and have likely lost more this year.

Luckily, some nonprofits are able to quickly take on the challenge. In Arizona, the Arizona Community Action Association (ACAA) has launched a campaign aimed at creating awareness about middle-class families who have fallen into poverty. ACAA is calling the effort "The Changing Face of Poverty in Arizona."

The suburbanization of poverty highlights the importance of recognizing the changing dynamics of poverty in America and responding accordingly. These changes will eventually need to be addressed by local governments who should focus on regional approaches to tackling poverty. In the meantime, for those who can afford it, donate to your local food bank. One of your suburban neighbors could need help finding their next meal.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Delta, the DA, and the DOJ: how marijuana got a small California town in trouble

Isleton, California is a nonmetropolitan community of 804 people in the picturesque Sacramento River Delta. It was once called "the Little Paris of the Delta" and was famous for its Crawdad Festival until it was canceled in 2009. Today, Isleton's claim to fame is its attempt to raise funds through the cultivation of medical marijuana.

In July of 2010, Delta Allied Growers (DAG), a nonprofit led by Michael Brubeck, approached the city of Isleton and proposed the creation of a medical marijuana farm on city property. More information about this proposal and story is here. DAG agreed to construct the greenhouses and to pay the city the higher of $25,000 or 3% of revenue each month in lieu of paying taxes. No sales were to occur at the property; rather DAG planned to ship the mature marijuana to dispensaries in Southern California. In November of 2010, the Isleton City Council approved a development agreement with DAG. Both parties believed the agreement complied with California law.

The Sacramento County District Attorney (DA), however, disagreed. Isleton is the smallest city in Sacramento County. A letter addressed to the city arrived in February of 2011 from Cindy Besemer, Chief Deputy District Attorney. The letter expressed the DA's concerns with the legality of the project. According to the DA, Proposition 215 does not authorize large-scale commercial cultivation of marijuana. Calls came later from Besemer with the threat of criminal prosecution for the city manager, Bob Pope, the city attorney, David Larsen, the chief of police, Rick Sullivan, and city council members. The DA never filed charges.

Instead, what followed was a civil grand jury investigation. The grand jury found that due to inadequate background checks on DAG, there were "improper financial interest[s]" in the project. The grand jury also found that the state laws were confusing and conflicted with federal laws. The district attorney issued a report to complement the grand jury's findings on September 22, 2011. The report detailed the DAG agreement's many legal problems. These problems included the agreement's violations of conflict of interest laws and other state and federal laws. The DA's report also chastised city officials for the incorrect conclusion that the project was exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and for improperly explaining the agreement to the Isleton City Council.

In the midst of the grand jury investigation, in May of 2011, United States Attorney Benjamin Wagner sent a letter to Isleton warning that the project violated federal law. Attorney General Eric Holder stated in 2009 that he would not pursue raids of medical marijuana dispensaries that were legal under state law. Many towns, however, have received similar letters to the one Benjamin Wagner sent to Isleton and raids have continued.

Why did Isleton risk all of this legal trouble? The answer is simple: money. The DAG project was going to double Isleton's revenue and employ residents. Isleton's revenue stood to rise from roughly $150,000 a year to at least $300,000 or as much as $600,000 a year as described in a newscast here.

Isleton is a struggling community. The proposed site of the marijuana farm was a failed housing development that went under with the economy in 2008. As explained in a Los Angeles Times article here, Isleton has a history of political and financial trouble. As recently as 2009, Isleton was $950,000 in debt. The city has seen numerous grand jury investigations, city managers, city council members, and mayors (eight mayors served the city in the period from 2004-2009). Many officials have tried to save the city in one way or another, but all continue to fail. As of June 2011, Isleton residents were passing around a petition to unincorporate the city.

Isleton's story is not one of private growers on private land causing problems like in Humboldt County or Lake County, as discussed in Legal Ruralism has discussed here and here. Nor is it a story about the Mexican cartels growing marijuana in rural areas, as discussed here and here. This is a story of a small, struggling town trying to make things better for its residents. If one simply walks down dilapidated Main Street in Isleton, one will understand why the city decided to take this risk.

If this plan had worked, it other small towns likely would have followed suit. While nearby Rio Vista decided to outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries, the ordinance is in place only for a year. If things had gone differently, Rio Vista may have looked to marijuana to solve its economic woes.

When industries leave and the economy crumbles, small towns will try to do whatever they can to avoid spiraling into bankruptcy. The lesson other small communities can learn from Isleton: do not use marijuana to save your town.

The "science" behind the stereotype

I came across an article published on Monday that suggests that people who live in urban areas are more easily stressed out than those that live in rural areas. While the article concludes innocently enough (talking about ways in which people can combat stress symptoms), I couldn’t help but wonder if the claim was actually based off of scientific evidence or mere stereotype.

The article claims that “Several scientists studied the brain using MRI images. These images seemed to indicate that city life might actually change the brain.” This statement didn’t seem particularly convincing to me, so I decided to investigate a little bit further. Indeed, the Economist points out that there was such a study done, but the results are inconclusive at best.

The Economist article takes for granted the results of a Dutch study that supposedly shows that “city dwellers have a 21% higher risk of developing anxiety disorders than do their calmer rural countrymen, and a 39% higher risk of developing mood disorders” ( I couldn’t find more information about this Dutch study, but given the difficulty in defining rural vs. urban and the fact that the dynamic between urban and rural livelihoods in the Netherlands is likely different than it is in the United States, I take that information with a grain of salt). It then goes on to suggest a plausible reason as to why this is the case: urban and rural brains behave differently!

Urban and rural people had different reactions in two different regions of the brain that indicated higher levels of activity amongst urbanites when placed in the same stressful situation as rural dwellers. The only problems with the study are that “the sample size was small”, “the result showed an association, rather than a definite, causal relationship”, and the doctor who conducted the study “is careful not to claim that his results show the cause of this connection.”

The inconclusive nature of the study gives some merit to my intuitive reaction that this type of study might just be a way of trying to “prove” a stereotype that cannot be proven. We have already discussed how different each rural setting is and the stresses and challenges are unique in different areas. I would think that it would be nearly impossible to realistically carry out a statistically significant study because it would need to test so many different people from so many different areas to hope to reach any meaningful general conclusions.

This article points out other issues with the study, noting that it leaves out suburbia and “raises more questions than it answers.” The bottom-line is that when we start attaching “science” to stereotypical representations, the stereotype can become further perpetuated and engrained in society, which can result in great harms. Before publishing inconclusive scientific results like this, I would hope that people would think about the effect they may have on public perception.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Boomtown strippers: canaries in the oil fields

Let me start off by saying I was only trolling on CNN when I found this article. I swear.

With the high price of fuel, America is developing domestic sources of crude oil more and more aggressively. While most Americans probably think of Alaska and former governor Sarah Palin's "Drill, baby, drill," several states have oil production including North Dakota. The center of North Dakota's oil production is the city of Williston, which sits on the Bakken oil formation. The boom also impacts the town of Watford City. Williston has a population of about 14,716 and Watford has only 1,744 residents (both towns populations are on this page). The oilmen are working around the clock, and production is so high the state has a website with daily reports about what wells have been tapped, capped, or abandoned.

With billions of barrels of oil sitting under Montana and North Dakota, the boom is on. Hundreds of men have rushed to North Dakota to work on oil rigs or in the support industry. Much like Alaska's oil pipeline rush, rural North Dakota has been flooded by very lonely men. And this means that sex workers have found their way to non-urban Williston.

The most notable sex workers have been the exotic dancers that have been trying to find work in the town's two strip clubs. While I couldn't find any information about when the clubs opened up, I'd guess that they opened at the beginning of the boom or maybe expanded when it occurred.

Dancers report making thousands a night in the CNN article."We make more than doctors" states one woman, "Back in the day, it was hard to make $200 a night. It was like pulling teeth. Now you can pull in $2,000 a night." An owner of one of the clubs confirms this stating that on a slow night a dancer can make $1,500.
That's about the same amount the dancer would make in one week working in Las Vegas.

So dancers from around the country want to come work in this little city that was once only known for the railroad's grain elevator. While there are no firm numbers, it is highly likely that there is prostitution happening around Williston as well. There just cannot be that many men with disposable income to spend on strippers and not have a few men that are interested in prostitutes.

And its not only dancers making big money. Fast food workers are making up to $15 an hour. The oil men come off four day shifts and are often paid before being let go for a four day break. So they come to town with a lot of money in their pockets and a lot of steam to release. This means bars, restaurants of all stripes, and yes, strip clubs, get flooded with cash.

But not all are happy with this influx of cash and roughnecks. CNN also reported on the rural community's adverse reaction to all the outsiders. The article did not touch on citizen's reactions to strippers and hookers, but locals are worried about increasing crime. There have been 16,495 crimes reported in the Williston community, and the article claims this is triple the rate of last year. Many of these crimes are sex related. Housing costs have also sky rocketed. If strippers are making $2,000 a night, they can afford expensive housing. But women in more conventional fields, like nursing, are being priced out as observed in CNN's local perspective article.

There are probably a lot of rural communities with very poor economies that would gladly trade places with oil rich western North Dakota. But I have to wonder what the citizens of Williston would have to say to those other rural communities about streets filled with "loose women" and speeding trucks.

While the boom of oil has brought in exotic dancers with the call of easy paydays, the bust may be foretold in the strip club as well. As the North Dakota boom begins to settle, there will be fewer oil men with smaller paychecks, and that will mean less money being thrown around the strip clubs. Just as dead canaries signaled it was time to get out of a mine during gold rushes; we might see the forthcoming bust of the North Dakota oil run when the strippers leave Williston.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCI): Deer school coach arrested on drug charges

The top story in the Oct. 12, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times is about the arrest of the Deer High School basketball coach, John Thompson, age 33, on drug charges. Deer is a tiny school in the southern part of Newton County. It has been the subject of a number of posts this year, mostly discussing the school's efforts to avoid consolidation. Read more here and here. This is Johnson's first year of teaching at Deer School.

The story indicates that the 5th Judicial Drug Task Force and the Clarksville police arrested Thompson on Oct. 5 in Clarksville. Clarksville is in neighboring Johnson County, which has a population of about 25,000. Thompson is charged with "intent to deliver a controlled substance, pills." Officials have not specified the "type of controlled prescription narcotics" at stake. A Clarksville police official states:
Thompson was not part of a long-term investigation, only about a week or so. "He just popped up all at once. We were watching him. He wanted to buy pills."
Thompson posted $2500 bail two days after his arrest. He will appear in court on November 14.

I will be interested to see how the Deer-Mt. Judea School Board handles this matter given that basketball season--very important in these parts--is in full swing. Will they replace Thompson mid-year and, if so, how? I will also be interested to see if further investigation reveals any efforts by Thompson to sell drugs to the Deer students.

In other news:
  • The county judge (chief administrative officer of the county) was injured in a logging accident in the community of Ben Hur. He is being treated at Cox hospital in Springfield, Missouri. The story is a reminder of the fact that many people in Newton County still make their living from timber.
  • The Jasper Volunteer Fire Department is loaning flue brushes to all interested residents as part of National Fire Prevention Week.
  • Community meetings with U.S. Postal Service officials regarding proposed closure of the post offices at Vendor and Ponca have been set.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Distancing rurality (and the Amish as subset of it)

This New York Times op-ed , "Our Amish, Ourselves" discusses wider society's intrigue with the Amish, situating the phenomenon in the wake of the recent Amish-on-Amish violence in Bergholz, Ohio, population 1,057. Read more about the recent incident here. The author of the op-ed is Joe Mackall, a professor of English and Creative Writing at nearby Ashland University and the author of the book, Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish.

Mackall offers some keen insights into the relationship between the rural "English" (that is, the non-Amish) and the Amish in this part of Ohio, but he also takes up wider society's attitudes toward the Amish. Regarding the former, Mackall explains that he lives among the Swartzentruber Amish, one of the more conservative groups of Amish, and he observes that the English there do not romanticize the Amish in the way of people who do not live among the Amish. Mackall writes:
Around here people tire of swerving around buggies and dodging horse droppings. Around here people resent the amount of land bought up by the Amish and how they have their own kind of health insurance, an insurance called community. Around here people are convinced that the Amish are getting away with something, have figured out something, have too many secrets. Around here, people love to poke holes in the fabric of Amish solidarity.
Mackall characterizes this sort of local prejudice against the Amish as "more fundamental" or "practical." He also illustrates it, explaining that whenever there is bad news about the Amish, the English rush to Amish farm stands to buy produce--but with the ulterior motive of reporting the bad news to the Amish, to make sure they know the bad news, to see their reactions.

Later in the op-ed, speaking more to how those who do not live near the Amish see this religious group, Mackall's description reminded me of how wider American society views rural folks more generally:
I know that many Americans will continue to see the Amish as a backward cult of religious fanatics, but that more will persist in mythologizing them, seeing in them what they need to see.
He then quotes Wendell Berry, who has characterized Americans' view of the Amish as "perfect blindness."

Mackall continues:
The truest thing I can say about the Amish is that within a week, or even less, they will disappear from the media and from the nation's consciousness. They will deliquesce--until the next newsworthy incident--into the background of contemporary America.
It strikes me that the divide described between the Amish and the rest of America is just a more extreme version of the divide between the rural and the rest of America. Mackall (or I) could have written those sentences:
The truest thing I can say about [rural America] is that within a week, or even less, [rural America] will disappear from the media and from the nation's consciousness. They/[It] will deliquesce--until the next newsworthy incident--into the background of contemporary America.
Would this be an accurate statement of how predominantly metropolitan America sees its rural counterpart? As curiosity, as background?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Farmville (Part IV): Women in farming

This past week in our Law of Rural Livelihoods class we read an excerpt from Farmer Jane, a book chronicling women in farming. The reading reminded me of an article I read in my local paper a few months prior. The article featured four sisters taking up and operating the family farm. When I originally read the article I remember thinking, "These girls are doing it all on their own? How are they going to manage?" I whole heartily believe that a woman can do anything a man can, so looking back on my thought process I am surprised I ever thought a woman could not farm on her own.

Perhaps I held this view because there are so few women owned farms in America. 2.8 million people claim farming as an occupation in the US, however there are only 300,000 women owned farms. Even though the numbers might suggest women are not involved with farming, actually female farmers are the fasted growing population buying and operating small farms. While more women are entering the farming world, many still face gender discrimination.

In an NPR interview, two women farmers were asked about their experiences in the agricultural industry. A previous blog post on this interview can be found here. Both women spoke about the discrimination they face. They described how men in the industry sometimes think a woman does not know as much about farming as a man would. In addition to cultural discrimination, until recently, women farmers also faced institutional discrimination.

In 2000, a number of women farmers filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for gender discrimination. The women stated they were unfairly denied farm loans because of their gender. In response to the lawsuit, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo introduced HR 4246, also known as the Equality for Women Farmer's Act in 2009. The bill would force the Department of Agriculture to write to denied applicants for farm loans, explaining the reasoning behind the denial. The farmer would then be given an opportunity to provide rebuttal evidence to show they in fact meet the program requirements.

The bill stalled, however, because on February 25th the USDA announced it would be launching a program for resolving women farmer's discrimination claims against the agency. The program will provide at least 1.3 billion in compensation and up to 160 million in farm debt relief to eligible women. Additionally the program would provide for up to $50,000 for reach woman farmer claimant who is successful in establishing the USDA discriminatory denied her a loan during certain periods between 1981-2000.

Since there are still very few women farmers, it is important there is a support group these women can go to. The USDA has a women outreach program. The program, "partner(s) with other federal and state agencies, community-based organizations and various grower organizations to improve the lives of women farmers and ranchers." Additionally, there is the California Women for Agriculture group. The group develops the interest of California women in agriculture and holds multiple social events to provide a support group for each other. Now that more women are entering farming, it is nice to see there are programs in place to help them succeed.

Western Shoshones receive compensation more than 30 years later, but some are unhappy

In 1863, the Treaty of Ruby Valley was signed between leaders of the Western Shoshone and representatives of the federal government. The University of Idaho College of Law's 4th Annual International Law Symposium stated that the treaty "affirmed the boundaries of the Western Shoshone Nation and gave the U.S. limited access to and use of Western Shoshone lands for specified purposes." As noted by the Lahontan Valley News, "[t]he land in question comprises about two thirds of Nevada and millions of acres in California, Idaho and Utah."

On December 19, 1978, Congress set aside roughly $26 million to settle land claims with the Western Shoshone. In 2004, President Bush signed a law finally authorizing the distribution of the settlement, which by then had swollen to more than $180 million. And as reported by the Elko Daily Free Press, the first settlement payments were finally made earlier this year. As far as the federal government is concerned, the distribution of payments brings to an end a dispute that dates back to the Civil War.

At the time the treaty was signed, the legal mechanism was already in place to shift title from the Shoshones to the federal government. In Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543, 587 (1823), Chief Justice Marshall held that the Discovery Doctrine gave the federal government "an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest." In 1985, the Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Dann, 470 U.S. 39 (1985), that the federal government had extinguished the claims of the Western Shoshone to the lands described in the Ruby Valley Treaty when Congress placed funds in a U.S. Treasury trust fund. The Court affirmed the Indian Claims Council's award of more than $26 million as compensation for the extinguishment of aboriginal title to the land in the latter part of the 19th Century.

The Dann decision resulted from a challenge to the settlement by two Shoshone sisters. They were sued by the federal government for trespass for grazing their livestock on federal land. According to The New York Times, by 2003 the sisters had been fined in excess of $3 million for willful trespass. The sisters claimed that they had never given up title to their land and that because they had not received payment yet, their title was not extinguished. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that payment for the land was completed when the money was placed into the trust account.

While the federal government may consider the issue to be settled, there are still pockets of resistance within the Western Shoshone. Carrie Dann, the surviving Dann sister, stood up at a Bureau of Indian Affairs meeting in Elko, Nevada, last year and told the BIA representatives that they were "ripping off" future generations by substituting the payment for legal title to the land. The Western Shoshone Defense Project has stated that its mission is "[t]o affirm Newe (Western Shoshone) jurisdiction over Newe Segobia (Western Shoshone homelands) by protecting, preserving, and restoring Newe rights and lands for present and future generations based on cultural and spiritual traditions." Carrie Dann and the other opponents are worried that by accepting the settlement payments, they will be unable to challenge the government's claim to title in the future. As the Supreme Court made clear in 1985 however, the Western Shoshone's title to the land has been extinguished regardless of whether the payments are accepted.

After losing at the highest court in the United States, the Western Shoshone Defense Project took their fight to the international stage. Both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. Committee for the Elimination of of Racial Discrimination found that the United States had violated international law by depriving the Western Shoshone of their rights. Both groups recommended that the United States government open a dialogue with the Western Shoshone and refrain from any further violations. The United States has ignored both findings.

The opponents of the settlement payments appear to represent a minority of Western Shoshone. The Lahontan Valley News reported in 2004 that a 2002 straw poll drew nearly 65% of eligible tribal voters and that 92% were in favor of accepting settlement payments. As of January 25 of this year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reported that it had approved nearly 5,000 people to receive settlement payments. The BIA further reports that it intends to complete the distribution by the end of this year, finally bringing the 30-year-old distribution process to an end.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Newton County slated to lose 60% of its post offices

It's been nearly two weeks since we've had a post about post offices, so I figure Legal Ruralism is overdue for one. This attention to impending post office closures is especially timely, of course, because the federal government in late July issued the list of 3,700 proposed post office closures, and we are now nearly three months into the six-month period during which the post office is soliciting comments to "convince" postal officials to remove a given post office from the list of proposed closures. I gather that this process of seeking input is fairly systematic and essentially orchestrated by the U.S. Postal Service.

Newton County, Arkansas, my home county, stands to lose more than half of its 10 post offices. The only "safe" post offices according to an August 3 story in the Newton County Times are Jasper, Deer, Western Grove and Marble Falls. The other six county post offices are included in the proposed closures: Mt. Judea, Parthenon, Ponca, Hasty, Vendor, and Compton. Also slated for closure are two other post offices in neighboring counties but which are very close to the Newton County line and serve Newton County residents. These are the post offices at Pettigrew, in Madison County, and at Pelsor in Pope County.

Subsequent editions of the Newton County newspaper report on meetings in each of the communities that stands to lose its post office. These meetings appear to be convened by the U.S. Postal Service, which sends a representative to each. For example, the September 28, 2011, issue of the Newton County Times reports on a Sept. 20 meeting at the Lurton Assembly of God Church regarding the proposed post office closure at Pelsor. (Lurton is in Newton County, but Pelsor, as noted above, is in Pope County). The paper reports that 55 postal customers, "many of them seniors," attended the meeting, which was facilitated by Diane Tindle from the Fayetteville Post Office. The paper notes that she has worked with the postal service for more than 25 years.

The story quotes Tindle:
What we are looking at are 28 P.O. box customers in Pelsor being moved to Dover which is 28 miles. The potential savings for the postal service for the first year would be over $60,000 and the savings over 10 years would be over $695,000.
Based on what I have read in other sources, I assume that the greatest portion of the savings would be from the post master's salary. The story continues:
Tindle emphasized to those attending that they should write their comments on the Postal Service Customer Questionnaire she handed out to everyone in attendance. She believes community involvement will go a long way in helping keep its post office. An idea she has heard in other locations is cutting service hours. Having service a few hours a week is better than none she agreed. She indicated that those reviewing the comments would be looking for unique reasons why the post office in question should be closed.
Patrons at the meeting noted that the post office in Deer, which is not slated for closure, is closer to them than the one in Dover, so that it would make more sense for their mail to be directed to Deer. They also noted that calling Dover is a long-distance phone call, while calling Deer is not. Those in attendance also noted that few of them have Internet access and that their cell phone access is "spotty at best." Thus, they argued, "mail is their primary source for communication." The customers pointed out that delivery of local newspapers and other periodicals would be delayed if their post office is closed, making it difficult for them to receive important information in a timely manner.

With just 28 P.O. Box customers at Pelsor, I am guessing that resisting the closure of this post office is a losing battle. As far as I know, no small store or other business could accommodate a post office concession there. On the other hand, 28 miles to Dover is a long way to go to get one's mail on a given day--and very expensive. Oddly, the story mentions nothing about rural free delivery (RFD), where a mail carrier brings mail to a resident's mailbox, at his/her home. Are there no residents in the Pelsor/Lurton area receiving mail by RFD? That is how my mother, who lives just a mile outside Jasper, the county seat, still receives her mail. It strikes me that as inconvenient as it would be to have to drive much farther to mail a letter or package, if these rural residents could receive their mail daily by RFD, at least some of the anxiety that has arisen from the proposed closures would be diminished.

Finally, I find it interesting that the community meeting was held in a church, no doubt because it was the only local place with room to accommodate the event.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

No one cares about you -- Eminent domain for the rural

If a Canadian oil company, TransCanada, has its way, the mid-West could be home to a new, enlarged oil pipeline, the Keystone XL. The Keystone XL will pass through rural areas and while TransCanada has offered to buy easements from land owners, they have also threatened litigation to get what the want. TransCanada has left many rural land owners with an ultimatum: take our final offer or fight an eminent domain suit in court.

As a recent NY Times article explains, this is exactly the position of Nebraskan cattle-buyer Randy Thompson. In their attempts to purchase the rights to use of his land they have made this final offer: take the offer or fight us in court. And so Thompson is backed into a corner, because as it turns out the current state of eminent domain law does not favor him kindly.

In interviewing a lawyer from the Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit advocate group for property rights issues, the Times got an answer that sums up the current state of eminent domain law, "Property owners almost never win these suits." But when we think about it, he didn't mean property owners generally. Eminent domain law is different for rural land owners.

Eminent domain is rooted in the law of necessity. It is a right a sovereign has over the land under their control, it comes just by virtue of being a government. Its exercise is limited only by the U.S. Constitution and through mandatory strict-compliance with relevant state statutes. But t
he Fifth Amendment does not prohibit the government from taking property; rather, it stops the government from taking property without paying for it. It is designed to secure compensation, not to limit governmental interference with property rights. The general rule is, however, that property can only be taken for public use.

The problem is that there is no single, precise definition of what constitutes public use. In a way, a definition is impossible: public use is determined by the current conditions of society. Generally, courts use two approaches: 1) actual use by the public; and 2) public advantage or benefit. And pipelines such as Keystone XL have a lot of case support. Cases such as Walker v. Gateway Pipeline Co., Loesch v. Oasis Pipeline Co., and Johnston v. Alabama Public Services Commission all indicate that pipelines and their benefits are one of those structures which can justify as public use for an eminent domain taking.

Many social scientists talk about the rural attachment to the land. And while rural persons might resist eminent domain actions with more fervor, that doesn't say anything about the law. Instead, we need to consider: how useful is the remainder of the land to the rural person? Is it different than the remainder for the urban person? What does the rural person do with her compensation?

Let's quickly consider a hypothetical, consider a farmer whose land is now cut in half by a pipeline. At the most basic level there are two options: sell the farm, take the compensation, and move to a different farm (or stop farming altogether); or continue farming on the particular farm. Both options present a lot of difficulty for her.

Were she to continue farming on that particular farm she would have to make many infrastructure changes. Depending on what she is farming she might need to re-engineer her watering plans to account for the division. If the pipeline is above-ground she might need new equipment because it isn't practical to drive her tractors, plows, etc around the pipeline. While none of this effects her actual property value, it fundamentally changes her farm. And these are worries that urban people just do not have to put up with.

And if she were to sell the farm she'd face the costs of starting a brand new farm. These are costs that the urban who takes the compensation doesn't have to deal with. And if she were to stop farming altogether, well it's not like urban people have to give up their livelihood.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Urban white knight

This weekend, the remake of the 1984 classic movie Footloose opened at the box office. Both the original and the remake feature exciting dance moves and music to match. But beneath the story, one finds a pervasive rural-urban tension. The story is loosely based on a true story and takes place in a rural town. The zealous town council, led by the towns reverend, enacts a slew of restrictive, puritanical rules. These rules are spurred by the death of a young teenager, the reverend’s own son, in a drunk driving accident. 

Urban audiences watching the movie judge this town, which prohibits dancing and rock and roll, as being far to extreme and backward. In enters a handsome and "upbeat" senior named Ren, who moves into town from urban Chicago with his single mother. He can't believe the ban on dancing and rock music and makes it his mission to give this town a senior prom. I still remember watching the original and clapping when he goes before the city council. He used the town's religious beliefs, which served as the backbone to the restrictive laws, to thwart those same laws. He reads several Bible verses that claim in ancient times people would dance to rejoice, exercise, or celebrate. 

Now Ren may be a young urban cool kid, but he could very well be many of the urban elite discussed by Professor Joan Williams, Professor Lisa Pruitt and redneck writer Joe Bageant (whose recent death and contribution to the rural dialogue are discussed here and here). As Lisa Pruitt points out in her law review article, The Geography of the Class Culture Wars, the “Missing Middle” (aka working class), those living in the “flyover states” or the large group who fall into both categories" are not always receptive of the liberal (usually urban) elites telling them how to live, judging their lives, and expecting them to take government handouts. The urban white knight often thinks that he or she has the solutions to fix rural problems. While Ren is successful in converting the town to his ideology in Footloose, this plan mostly backfires in real life. This lack of understanding of working class perspective is in part the reason working class whites have left the Democratic Party, according to Williams in her most recent book.

 However, there are some striking differences in the remake that show movement in the right direction in Hollywood's portrayal of rural America. For one, it portrays the townsfolk more as over-caring parents than over-religions zealots. This shows an appreciation that both urban and rural parents can overreact in order to protect their children from harm. In addition, according to Susan Wloszczyna of USA Today, the movie was more grounded by the fact that the setting was switched from "a fictional white-bread Utah burg to a small rural town in the heart of racially integrated Dixie." This joins the recent re-emergence of television shows highighting Dixie, including “Glamour Belles,” truTV’s “Lizard Lick Towing”, CMT’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the show "Hart of Dixie" (of which a blog post was written about earlier today). According to Karen Cox in her opinion in the New York Times,
[these] shows promise new insight into Southern culture, but what they really represent is a typecast South: a mythically rural, white, poorly educated and thickly accented region that has yet to join the 21st century.... These stereotypical depictions are insulting to those who live in the region and know that a more diverse South exists.
However, Footloose seems to defy Cox's stereotyping of Hollywood's stereotype of the South. The original director, Pitchford, was pleased at the diversity and struck by this disparity between his version and remake. "I was surprised by how truly diverse this one was and how white ours was," he says.

These small steps seemingly suggest that the writer and director were hoping to respect rural communities while highlighting the importance of appropriate teen rebellion and angst. Commentary from the director speaks a different story. Writer and director Craig Brewer noted that the original was inspired by a true incident, yet because "the U.S. has split into blue states and red states, ... the story has even more relevance today” than 30 years ago. He also says, “[m]any towns in the U.S. are like Bomont. We’re dealing with religion, and the genuine belief that souls will go to hell because dancing is a sin. The city fathers want to make their towns safe places for their children. These laws are created for protection.” While the remake veers from some of the negative stereotypes of the South, it seems the rural prejudice Susan Wloszczyn admonishes are still imbedded within those who wield the pen and those behind the lens.

All signs point North....North Dakota, that is.

In the midst of constant news of dark and hard financial times, rising unemployment, and rising cuts to public services, North Dakota is a beacon of light and hope, or so claims the Governor Jack Dalrymple. A 'new gold rush', as many media outlets have called it, is taking place in the northern state. Black-gold, or oil, has been found in the Bakken oil fields in both Montana and North Dakota. The oil field is estimated to have somewhere between 5 to 24 billion barrels of oil (the conservative number estimated by the US Geological Survey and the liberal estimated by oil company CEO Harold Hamm).

The Wall Street Journal reported on the possibility of drawing United States out of OPEC's (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) market stranglehold. In an interview with the WSJ, Continental CEO Harold Hamm (founder of the Bakken fields), shared his optimistic view of creating a niche in the global market for oil and gas derived energy in the 21st century. He also insist on the ability of United States to create more jobs by following the lead of North Dakota.
"We can't find any unemployed people up there. The state has 18,000 unfilled jobs," Mr. Hamm insists. "And these are jobs that pay $60,000 to $80,000 a year." The economy is expanding so fast that North Dakota has a housing shortage. Thanks to the oil boom—Continental pays more than $50 million in state taxes a year—the state has a budget surplus and is considering ending income and property taxes.
Using Biblical metaphors, headlines portray North Dakota as a land of plenty where unemployed laborers are migrating there to find a better life. The LA Times reports on how workers are perceiving this new found sanctuary.
Steve Williams, 59, moved his struggling construction company from Montana to Watford City, where he lives with his wife, son and two towheaded grandsons in a home he's renovating in exchange for rent. He knows he has a lot to be thankful for: He has health insurance for the first time in decades, a steady job and a new life in a town he says is "America, the way it should be."
It's the American dream revived in a post-foreclosure nation! Governor Dalrymple boasts of this new opportunity making the case that is critical to invest in much needed infrastructure for the state and encourage other business opportunities. Big oil isn't the only one handing out jobs like hot cakes. Amazon, the giant online retailer, announced that it plans to expand and place new facilities in the state.

However, Gov. Dalrymple and Mr. Hamm's predictions of North Dakota's job boom avoid addressing some of the questions brought on by environmentalist and economic justice organizers. Amazon's announcement of its new North Dakota facility made some people cringe. In a recent expose of an Amazon warehouse located in Pennsylvania, the Morning Call reported of unsafe working conditions, low-wages, consistent job insecurity and
The situation highlights how companies like Amazon can wield their significant leverage over workers in the bleak job market, labor experts say. Large companies such as Amazon can minimize costs for benefits and raises by relying on temporary workers rather than having a larger permanent workforce, those experts say.
Amazon workers have even likened the work condition to slave-like conditions where breaks are scarce, employees constantly get sick or injured, jobs are temporary and insecure, and there are little to no opportunities to receive benefits or even unionize. It makes you wonder how a fortune 500 company can claim such success while its workers are being exploited? What indicators are measuring the success of company? Shouldn't this include worker rights? Unfortunately, a temporary, insecure, and low wage position is becoming the norm. What is even more alarming is that it is also becoming the accolade in today's job market.

Along with lack of regulation within the work environment, the governor announced his stance against federal agencies regulating the local environment, as he calls it "senseless rulings from bureaucracies like the EPA." It is an interesting position to take in the wake of a great natural resource discovery. The population in some cities in North Dakota have reportedly tripled since the discovery of the Bakken Oil Fields.

Critics of the oil and job boom extravaganza claim that these new found oil has also brought a lot health and environmental risks that need to be accounted for. One of them being the preferred method in which to extract shale oil is 'fracking' (pumping pressurized water and chemicals into the ground to break up and release the oil found in the shale). This leads to chemical leaking into underground water reserves and contaminating the drinking water. In northern NY (another site of new found shale-oil), residents have complained of the environmental and health effects of welcoming oil companies into the neighborhood.

The emphasis on job opportunity should not triumph over environmental or labor rights concerns. Nor should the story be so dichotomous as is often the case. In all senses, North Dakota has become a case to watch closely as there is beacon of light in bleak times. Additionally, local government should also make sure to protect its assets as corporate interest start uprooting and migrating north as well. I believe the local government should trust in regulatory bodies to help define the measurement at which the workers and the natural environment will be protected. Relying on the predictions of a company is like believing in a fairy godmother who will fix all economic woes.

Cowboys, culture, and the (rural) American West

Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate during budget debates in March of this year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid argued against proposed cuts to funding for the arts. In the midst of his speech, he made the following comment:
These programs create jobs...The National Endowment of the Humanities is the reason we have in northern Nevada every January a cowboy poetry festival. Had that program not been around, the tens of thousands of people who come there every year would not exist.
And BOOM! Cowboy poetry entered the national budget debate. Politico reported the statement with the headline "Reid: Save federal funding for the cowboy poets!" Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin tweeted her thoughts:
We're $14,000,000,000,000+ in debt, yet rodeo clowns still want to fund Cowboy Poetry Party. That must be 1 helluva high natl priority shindig.
Rush Limbaugh discussed it on his radio show. Conan O'Brien poked fun at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other (albeit fictional) "culturally relevant events" in a monologue on his late night show (click here to watch a clip). The New York Times ran an article on the festival, its funding, and the political brouhaha. The Times editorial board even entered the fray, stepping up to the festival's defense.

What Reid and the Times editorial board were attempting to defend is the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, produced by the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada. The festival is described as follows on their website:
Every winter for the last 27 years, cowboys, ranchers, rural and urban people have traveled en masse to this small high desert community, to join with friends, family and others who care about the rural West. Together, they listen to poetry and music, learn about cowboy culture in the U.S. and around the world, experience great art, watch western films, learn a craft, and gather to eat, drink and swap stories.
As the Times reported, at $45,000 a year, the amount of federal money going to the festival is "someplace between small and minuscule." Still, the gathering was "employed by conservatives as a symbol of fiscal waste."

What interests and disappoints me about this debate, however, is not the political posturing and bickering. It's not just that I am from Nevada, admire the Western Folklife Center, and previously worked for Senator Reid. Instead, in the ferocity of the reactions and derisive comments, I see a debate over what kinds of culture we as a society value. Few seemed surprised or outraged that Senator Reid defended arts funding; they were shocked that he defended arts funding for cowboy poetry. In my view, these reactions stemmed from a view that rural culture is unimportant, or not culturally relevant.

In his article in the Times, Adam Nagourney highlighted this view in quoting a frequent Cowboy Poetry Gathering attendee, Paul Zarzyski:
A lot of art forms at first brush might sound peculiar...After you learn a little bit about them and the people who perform them, you find out that they are as significant as any kind of art forms. Cowboy poetry comes out of a culture that most people don't understand. Most of that criticism is urban and uninformed.
We have talked in class about common misconceptions of rural America and how those views can affect public policy, the law, and economic development. One such stereotype is that rural places are cultural deserts, without significant art or literature to contribute to society. To me, the political and media reaction to Senator Reid's comment seemed to be motivated by this kind of view.

Like other cultural icons, the cowboy has a complicated relationship with its home region. As we've discussed in class, a recurring stereotype of rural people and places is that they are all connected to agriculture, i.e., "everyone in rural America must be a farmer." In parts of the rural American West, the idealized farm changes to the idealized ranch. The stereotype boils down to this one line: "everyone in the rural West must be a cowboy." This is, of course, a great generalization that ignores a variety of other cultural and social elements that make up the rural West. Still, it is clear from Mr. Zarzyski's comments and the Western Folklife Center's description of the poetry gathering that cowboy poetry is an art form and a very real part of the culture of the rural West.

As these things usually do, the cowboy poetry budget matter blew over fairly quickly. But I was, and am still, irked by the reaction. In part, I am frustrated when the rural West's culture is cast aside because I feel my region, my state, is being overlooked. I am most certainly not from a rural place. My hometown, Reno, NV, registered 225, 221 people in the 2010 Census, and a total of 425, 417 people live in the Reno-Sparks Metropolitan Area. In terms of population, Nevada as a state is not really even rural; 90 percent of the state's 2.7 million residents live in one of three metropolitan areas. An additional eight percent of the population lives in one of five micropolitan areas.

However, on a county-by-county level, Nevada is very rural. Of the state's 17 counties (or, in the case of Carson City, county-equivalents), 13 have populations below 50,000 persons. Eight of these counties have ten thousand residents or fewer. The 13 rural counties make up 85 percent of Nevada's total area. The county where the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering takes place, Elko, is fairly large, with 48, 818 residents in 2010. Still, Elko, like much of northern Nevada (including my home county of Washoe), has strong historical ties rural industries like mining, ranching, and farming.

Mostly, I am frustrated by the notion that rural folklife is a punchline in a joke. As an American Studies major in undergrad, my courses focused on the history and culture of the American West. I studied the history, art, literature, and film of the West, including two classes that required viewing several Westerns. My motivation for studying the American West was (what I perceive as) the short shrift given to western authors, stories about western places, and films about the West. I feel that this is particularly true for the rural West. And when national leaders question the value of the work of organizations like the Western Folklife Center, they play into the dangerous myth of the cultural desert.

Alabama rolls out the unwelcome mat

The state of Alabama is home sweet home to 4,779,736 residents. Some of whom are now not welcomed according to the Southern state's new immigration law, HB 56. Some of the provisions required by the law include: public schools must document the immigration status of its students; the state will have the ability to charge an individual with a criminal offense if they cannot provide proof of legal status; police will have the ability to ask for proof of legal status if they have reasonable suspicion of the individual being undocumented. You can find the full text of HB 56 here.

Labor and Economics

Is it another scapegoat story? Job insecurity runs rampant throughout the country and who can we blame for the lack of jobs? Immigrants! Elections are around the corner, the blaming frenzy is at an all time high. It's a well worn story, when fiscal hard times hit communities, fingers point to the borders. HB 56 is strategically referred to as the "Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act." The law's rhetoric attempts to pitt working class communities against immigrant communities. For what? Some of the worst and exploitative jobs available.

A recent article in the Nation Magazine discusses how politicians are fixated with "fake economics" in order to alleviate concerns over an ever rising unemployed population. However, as the statement below indicates, immigrants play a critical role in our nation's economy.
The architects of this mandate claim that if we drive undocumented workers away, there will be more jobs for American citizens. Years of evidence and early reports from Alabama tell a different story. Famers are already reporting a crisis in their workforce that will hobble harvests and drive food prices higher. One farmer reported that he had only eleven citizens apply for the picking jobs after his crew left, only one stayed to take the job after learning what was entailed—and that man quit after one day. Alabama farmer Chad Smith told Forbes, “The tomatoes are rotting in the vine, and there is very little we can do.” “We will be lucky to be in business next year,” he added.
One critical component that the HB 56 bill has brought to light is the exploitative working conditions that many undocumented workers must succumb to in the agricultural, dairy and poultry industries. Many citizens do not want to take the jobs left behind by undocumented workers. Not because they're lazy, it is just inhumane exploitative working conditions for extremely low wages. Denying immigrant communities employment or an education does not automatically guarantee U.S. citizens job security or a better education. Many immigrants also pay taxes and contribute to local economies.

Targeting a Population?

Many are criticizing the new immigration law claiming that it will open the flood gates for legalized racial profiling. The state's immigration law preempts federal immigration law and pushes the boundaries set up by the Constitution's Supremacy Clause that states the only the federal government can create and enforce immigration laws. Professor Kevin Johnson was asked by ColorLines to comment on the status of the case against the state
[Kevin] Johnson, the UC Davis law professor, said that this ruling sets up the next stage of the legal fight that will likely end up in the Supreme Court. “Part of what this tells me is there is some conflict between this case and the DOJ’s case versus Arizona,” Johnson said. “It makes it all the more likely this is going to end up in the Supreme Court’s hands.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has systematically targeted Latino immigrants and deported over a million people throughout the country during the past 3 years. Despite the fact that Latinos make up for only 65-67 percent of the immigrant population, 90 percent of those detained and deported are Latinos. It is being reported that this is the greatest number of deportations in this nation's history. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just released their latest figures here.

Alabama's Rich History

The civil rights movement has strong roots in Alabama. The activist Rosa Parks initiated a city wide bus boycott in Montgomery. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" when he was arrested for protesting segregation in his home town. Given this dynamic history, why are so many commentators still saying "Well, that's Alabama for you." I think we should be able to challenge these notions that the whole state of Alabama is inherently racist.

There is evidence of a growing grassroots movement within the state that is resisting the state's unjust law and challenging residents of Alabama to address the real problems their facing. Church leaders, farmers, contractors and community civil leaders all stand against the bill. As an act of protest people are not showing up to work, temporarily closing down businesses and refusing to send their children to public school. An Alabama resident said this to the Associated Press about the actions

"We closed because we need to open the eyes of the people who are operating this state," said Contreras, originally from the Dominican Republic and a U.S. citizen. "It's an example of if the law pushes too much, what will happen."

Currently, the law has been blocked by the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals on two of the law's provisions. It seems that the fate of undocumented communities in Alabama lies on two separate factors: the nation's high courts and the support from members of the community. As suggested in many news stories, draconian laws such as these only build up anxiety amongst the general population and systematically separates people from their friends, families and communities.

Note: I choose not to use the term "alien" to describe people without legal documents. I understand the term is used as a way to describe people who are foreign-born and hold citizenship status in a country outside of the United States. However, there are ways to describe this population without using the term "alien." This term connotes derogatory and dehumanizing meanings. In this manner, by classifying whole populations under such a label denies the ability for people to connect to the plight of an individual or a whole community that may be labeled as such. The word "alien" and all other derogatory words act as a linguistic segregation that have material effects. Undocumented people in the U.S. should be treated with dignity as it is a fundamental human right. I'm appalled that the term continues to be used in our legal institutions and laws.